The invention of television is complicated. TV didn’t appear fully formed in of a laboratory, but stumbled bit by bit out of the collective imaginations of tinkerers and scientists all over the world after decades of research and hobby.
There’s no question, though, that television as a culture was a firstly American phenomenon. For better or worse, no nation sat around a cathode ray tube quite like America. There wasn’t much to watch at first, and people weren’t totally sure why they needed to see something when the radio was just as good at relaying information. But that wasn’t the case for long.
Wednesday May 17, 1939 marked the first televised baseball game in history. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) used an early Iconoscope camera to broadcast Columbia v Princeton to about 220 television sets across New York. The audience was small, but the effect was huge. No one really remembered or cared about the game (Princeton won) but the broadcast demonstrated American achievement as part of the New York’s 1939 World’s Fair just down the road.
Not everyone was so impressed. Poor picture quality, limited viewing angles, and the lack of seasoned announcers didn’t add up to the kind of well oiled television production you see on TV today. A few observers thought viewing sports from inside ruined it. Baseball? From a sofa? What would Ty Cobb think of that?
Nevertheless, baseball, and indeed all of America’s favorite sports, played an important role in developing the kind of audiences TV needed to become a fixture in American households. The importance of May 17, 1939 both to sport and the future of communication wasn’t lost on historians or sports fan alike.
Columbia still celebrates the historic broadcast, and aired TV specials marking the silver and diamond anniversaries in 1964 and 1989. Which is funny if you think about it, because it may be the only time in the history a team put that much fanfare into commemorating a loss.